Interview with Monica Lewinsky’s Dad: Dr. Bernard Lewinsky

Somewhere, somehow, and probably more than once – you have screwed up – big time. As doing so is practically a prerequisite to adulthood, it is likely that many of your super sized screw-ups occurred at a relatively young age.

Now, imagine if just one of those coming of age disasters became the scuttlebutt of every front page in the nation, the lifeblood of every Paula Zahn and Nancy Grace the networks could conjure up, and perhaps the undoing of the 42nd president of the United States of America.

This is of course, the nightmare into which Monica Lewinsky and her family were hurled. A disastrous whirlwind of one of the grandest media crazes in history. One in which all things Lewinsky were dissected and scrutinized only to be puked out and left to rot, after months upon months of a carefully orchestrated emotional strip search of a young woman and her family.

Between Monica, unconscionable political agendas, and the constant battle for Nielsen Ratings stood her protective father—Dr. Bernard Lewinsky (or Bernie as he likes to be called)—a man who had lived a quiet life as an attentive and caring Los Angeles area Oncologist —until January 1998—when the media blitzkrieg hit.

The attacks were not just on his daughter—but on him, his work and his personal life. More concerned with ratings than reality—the “news” quickly informed the world that Bernie was a Mercedes driving, ill-tempered, high profile, Beverly Hills physician.

This however, is not the case.

Had the media chose to report on the real Dr. Lewinsky, the story would have been far less sensational and much, much different. Their reports would have told stories about a doctor that chose to evolve patient care beyond medical technology, prescriptions, and the seemingly unsolvable rhetoric of health insurance to a philosophy that embodies a deep concern for their time of extreme vulnerability and fear. A philosophy founded on the idea that if patients are in an environment where they feel more at ease, there is the possibility that they can heal better.

He creates this atmosphere for his patients, through an art he has honed since the age of 8—photography.

With his photography, Bernie replaces the traditionally cold and sterile atmosphere of medical offices with photographs of North America’s most striking natural symbols of serenity and beauty. Photographs he has thoughtfully taken and carefully selected to help quiet the anxiety of patients going through procedures that can be both humiliating and terrifying. And, even though there are studies that support what he is doing, he will make sure that you know that there is nothing scientific or omnipotent about this. In other words, his patients can take it or leave it and either way is perfectly fine by him. But, for those that his photos do touch and possibly soothe (and through numerous conversations with his patients, he knows there are many that find a point of contentment within them) he is willing to oblige them with what he calls his “vignettes of life”.

That is just the kind of person that he is.

Recently, I sat down with Bernie to learn more about his photography, his philosophy on healing patients, and how photography helped him in his own healing process. This is what he had to say.

LR: How would you describe your photography?

Dr. Bernard Lewinsky: I would like to say my photographs are vignettes of life…vignettes of nature. I got a camera when I was 8 years old. I got divorced 19 years ago or so and in that process I needed to do something for myself. Photography is what I did. It is my form of healing.

Then, I went through a rather hectic period in my life with my family. During this time, I would go into the dark room and I would close the door, shut off the world, put music on and make prints. The majority of the photographs that I printed during that dark period were dark, stark black and white with very little gray.

LR: In an article that you wrote in May 1998 you stated, “an ambiance that embodies the strength of nature helps the healing process.” What did you mean by that?

Dr. BL: I think that if you are very ill and let’s say that you are not religious – you need a spiritual connection with something to get you through what you are going through. An image of nature can provide you with the vehicle for finding some form of inner peace. Photographs can convey the peacefulness that patients are trying to get and sometimes they can’t. From that point of view, I think they help the healing process.

LR: Do you consider this an alternative therapy?

Dr. BL: No, I don’t. There are a lot of things that I take into account. I want to be known as a Radiation Oncologist that treats cancer. I don’t want people to think that I am out in left field trying to heal their cancer by showing patients photographs. That is not what I am doing. My extent is that if you come to my office and you are anxious and if the environment in my office makes you feel good and if that is because of my photographs then great and if not, then so be it. That is as far as I go.

LR: Do you notice differences in the success levels between patients that have what you would consider a more positive psyche compared to those that are less positive?

Dr. BL: I am not going to answer that, but when a patient comes in and is worried about every single detail in their life and what will happen because of the cancer and with the cancer and he is just really, really anxious – I will write in my chart, ‘Patient is exceedingly anxious, not relaxed, not focused.’

When they come back with re-occurrences you can sort of correlate that. I am not saying this is scientific. I have no explanation why people reoccur other than the cancer did not get killed. But there is a negative aspect to negative thinking and there is a positive aspect to positive thinking. Now if you are a Pollyanna and you process everything in a Pollyanna way…

LR: A Pollyanna?

Dr. BL: [In an over exaggerated woman’s voice] ‘Oh everything is just fine, Doctor. No I am not concerned about the cancer. Go ahead and do what you need to do because I am fine.’ This is total denial. I do not think this person is going to do very well if something goes wrong.

LR: Do you provide any instruction on visualization therapy to your patients or on how to use your photography in their healing process?

Dr. BL: No, I do not like to ram anything down anyone’s throat.

In the other office I have pictures of waterfalls, where the falls come down, goes through boulders and then into a peaceful river. I put the three together because they have a message. There are some patients that catch that and some that don’t. Either way, for those who want to get it, let them get it.

LR: Do you think there is a general resistance in western medicine to accept that this could actually work?

Dr BL: Yes, because most of western medicine is research based and within this, you have to have proof that something follows the right criteria and principles to accept it. With photography, you can never prove anything because it is unique to the individual. You cannot make someone feel something. You cannot put data to what someone feels.

LR: There are actual studies coming out to support what you are saying.

Dr. BL: There are studies that show photography helps. The skeptics are going to disbelieve the studies because they are not scientific enough. There was a study that was published, in which pain medication usage was measured in post-operative recovery rooms. Some of the rooms had photographs of nature in them and others did not. The study showed that the pain medication requirements were much higher in the rooms without photographs. You may jump all over me by saying that and say, ‘Well, yes, but there were big orthopedic cases in one room and simple procedures in the other.’ But, the study was controlled and this was not the case.

LR: Is it because we base everything on data and science?

Dr. BL: I think part of it is that, but I also think that it is because eastern culture is so old. They relied on everything that they could in order to heal themselves. We are so new that we believe that the scientific approach is the only way to do things. Look at how much acupuncture is coming into the oncology field. There are more and more paramedical areas that we are going into and the bottom line is – if it helps the patients then who cares.

LR: You seem to have a mindful approach to life.

Dr. BL: I am introspective. I am a Capricorn, so I do not do anything too quickly. I like to know roughly what the implications are. I do not like change much.

LR: It also means that you are stubborn.

Dr. BL: You know I have been told that.

LR: How did you get through everything with your family?

Dr. BL: I grew up in El Salvador. I saw poverty and illness early in my life. I also deal with people that are exceedingly vulnerable. I accept the responsibility I have in helping them cure a very serious problem. If you act too quickly and indecisively you may make the wrong decision, so you need to learn to balance that. How did I get through that period? God knows. It was one of those things that I got through.

LR: One day after another?

Dr. BL: One day after another. It was difficult. It was unheard of in history so to speak, so no one could help me. No one could give me advice. No one could say, ‘When I had this problem, this is what I did.’ [He laughs] There we were.

LR: How can you reconcile what the media and politics did to your family?

DR. BL: I don’t. I really don’t. I am bitter about it. But, being bitter about it does not do anybody any good. I learned that.

I did blow my mind a few times and it just came back to haunt me with more off color jokes and more ridiculous comments. The reality is that nobody, but us knew what it felt like to go through it. The media is about 15 minutes of fame. They pounce on something that can keep their programs going. They will capitalize on it until it dies. If there is a victim or if somebody gets trampled, so be it. At least their ratings were high and that is the reality of what it is all about. I can’t tell you the phone calls that I got from everybody in the media. They were so concerned about our health and our life and our, this and that. Do they call me now? Heavens no. I haven’t heard from them. They wouldn’t even know who I was. We were the soup du jour for a long time.

LR: Is there any sense in your photography of you telling the world this is me? Of you trying to get outside of the media?

Dr. BL: Yes. If you looked at what I did during that time it was stark black and white. I was angry. That period has passed. It is what it is. The media got its licking and they got what they wanted out of me. And that is about it. Unfortunately, my daughter was the sacrificial lamb in this whole thing. It was all political. That people can still think about it, that people are still making jokes about it – she cannot do anything without someone making cracks about it. They do not give her any credit for having any brains at all. And, yet when you think about what she went through. The enormous pressure she was under. I mean, getting called to testify in an impeachment trial against the president of the United States?

LR: She was a very young woman. A woman that had bought a prom dress three years prior and now she is going head on with the media, politics and the President of the United States?

Dr. BL: Why is it called the Lewinsky affair and not the Clinton affair? Because the media likes it better the other way. But, we are not going to turn back the clock, it is what it is. It was what it was. Mine as well just try to forget it.

LR: I was just really taken aback by the way you handled yourself with the media, with Larry King and Barbara Walters. I do not know how many people could have handled that the way you did.

Dr. BL: Part of it was, I really did not know what happened and they did not believe me -Barbara Walters and Larry Elder and all of the other puppets. I did not know a thing. You can call a spade a spade, but they wanted to call it something else.

LR: My dad does not know everything I do. It is a father daughter relationship. It seems normal.

Dr. BL: I do not think that is abnormal. No father wants to know everything about their daughter. That is not normal

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